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What is Yakitori?

Diane Goettel
By
Updated May 16, 2024
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Yakitori is the Japanese version of shish kebab. In particular, it is a skewered chicken dish that is cooked over a barbecue. The chicken is cut up into bite-sized pieces, skewered on metal or bamboo rods, and cooked over a flaming bed of charcoal. Much like other types of barbecue, yakitori is made with a distinct sauce. The sauce is called tare sauce and is made with soy sauce, sugar, sake, and mirin. Sake and mirin are both kinds of Japanese rice wine but differ in terms of their alcohol content.

Once the chicken has been dressed with the sauce, it is cooked over the charcoals until it becomes quite tender. Sometimes yakitori is simply dressed with salt instead of the tare sauce, but this is less common. Although all yakitori is made with chicken, there are many variations on the dish that use different kinds of chicken parts. Toriniku, for example, is a variation in which only pieces of white meat are served. Tebasaki is a variation made with chicken wings.

This kind of Japanese barbecue also makes use of the organ meats found in a chicken. When the dish is made with chicken hearts it is called hatsu. When it is made with gizzards, it is called sunagimo or zuri. Skewered and barbecued chicken liver is called reba. When the dish is made with the small intestines of the chicken it is called shiro. There are a number of other variations as well that use other parts of the chicken such as the skin, the tail, and the cartilage.

In addition to these chicken dishes, there are also kinds of Japanese skewered barbecue that use meats from other animals. These non-poultry dishes are referred to as kushiyaki. They used meats from pigs and oxen, and sometimes feature vegetarian proteins such as tofu as well as vegetables. Enoki maki is a kind of kushiyaki that is made with mushrooms that are wrapped in thin slices of pork, dressed with a sauce, and then barbecued. Asuparabekon is a kind of kushiyaki that is made with asparagus and bacon.

Many restaurants that serve yakitori also serve kushiyaki and the dishes can be enjoyed together during the same meal. They can also be enjoyed with other Japanese dishes such as sushi and udon. All of these dishes are accompanied well with a good bottle of sake, which can be served chilled or warmed.

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Diane Goettel
By Diane Goettel
"Diane Goettel has a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in English from Brooklyn College. Diane lives in Mount Vernon, New York with her husband, Noah. They are the proud parents of a Doberman Pinscher named Spoon. Specialties: book editing, book marketing, book publishing, freelance writing, magazine publishing, magazine writing, copywriting,"
Discussion Comments
By anon969532 — On Sep 10, 2014

@ddljohn - Actually, in Japan it's becoming more common to refer to any meat or vegetables grilled in this manner as "Yakitori". The term kushiyaki is being used less and less.

By ddljohn — On Sep 06, 2011

@alisha-- Yakitori is specifically skewer barbecued chicken. Of course, there are beef versions too, but when it's made with anything other than chicken, it is called "kushiyaki." So "yakitori" is only used for chicken.

Different cooks really do make yakitori differently though. When I was in Japan, I've had very plain ones, lightly sprinkled with some soy sauce and salt. I also had very juicy ones with sweeter sauces that reminded me of sweet and sour chicken. So there is some leeway with how it is made. But it's always made with chicken meat or parts of chicken.

By discographer — On Sep 05, 2011

Wow, yakitori is pretty different from shish kebab. I've never heard shish kebab made with chicken hearts and liver before!

Is yakitori ever made with beef? I know that lamb and beef are as common as chicken shish kebabs, but it sounds like it is not preferred much for yakitori.

By drtroubles — On Sep 05, 2011

You can easily make yakitori at home if you are willing to buy a bit of sake and follow the directions perfectly. Sometimes when I have barbeques at my place I like to mix things up a bit by having a variety of international foods.

Yakitori from Japan and samgyeopsal from Korea are just a couple of the easier foods I like to put together when I have company. They are both really quick to make and taste delicious.

Also, if you are not a really good chef, you can always just order some yakitori from a Japanese restaurant. Your friends don't need to know.

By wander — On Sep 04, 2011

For those that are traveling through Japan and are a bit worried about trying new foods, yakitori is really delicious and easy to stomach. It really is just a chicken kabob, and you can find them all over the place.

Japan has a lot of small food stalls and yakitori is one of the more popular foods you can pick up. If you don't want to spend a lot to give it a whirl, dropping into a 7-11 can work too. 7-11s in Japan carry a pretty big selection of cooked meats and various instant meals. Just be warned, convenience store food is never as good as what you get in a restaurant.

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel
"Diane Goettel has a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in English from Brooklyn College. Diane lives in Mount...
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